Our survey of readers asking their ideas on potential topics for my columns identified positive psychology, positive emotions, resilience, and gratitude as areas of high interest. This current column is one of several that will address these issues. First, I provide a brief overview of positive psychology and discuss why it is beneficial to focus more on this area with clients as well as ourselves. Then, I discuss negative events and emotions, virtues and strengths, positive emotions and well-being, and health and emotional longevity. I briefly discuss the work of several influential theorists, researchers, and authors who I believe provide important insights and ideas that can aid our work with clients and our personal growth.
What is Positive Psychology?
This area of psychology began over a decade ago when leaders believed strongly that this discipline had much more to offer beyond understanding and treating psychological and psychiatric disorders and personal problems that create distress and personal suffering. While the focus on treatment to alleviate these disorders and suffering was deemed important, the aim was to increase the study and focus of interventions on positive attitudes and emotions, loving relationships, values, strengths, mindfulness, engagement in activities and work, spirituality, and meaning in life. The ultimate goal is to promote personal well-being by building and using personal strengths to decrease negative and increase positive emotional and cognitive states (Snyder, Lopez, & Pedrotti, 2014). This can lead to better health, happiness, and longevity (Harvard Health, 2009).
Negative Events and Emotions
Negativity is all around us. News programs, newspapers, and online news articles focus on problems in our world or community, bad events, and bad behaviors of individuals. Many of us experience negative, painful or traumatic events such as the unexpected loss of a loved one, a failed marriage or intimate relationship, loss of a job, loss of financial stability or other significant loss. Most of us live through and cope well with these experiences, but some of us struggle and have trouble doing so. We cannot, nor should we, avoid negative emotions or events. The challenge is to survive these, and balance the focus on the positive as well as the negative in our work and our personal lives so that negative emotions or thoughts do not drag us down too far, or we get help if needed.
Emotions such as anxiety, fear, anger or guilt serve an important function. For example, anxiety helps us remain vigilant and avoid or minimize external threats. It can also help us better prepare for an event such as a regulatory review of a clinical program, a job interview, an important meeting or a presentation at work or school. Anxiety is a problem if it is persistent, overwhelms us, leads to physical and emotional distress or avoidant behavior or is symptomatic of an anxiety disorder. Similarly, anger can motivate us to work hard to achieve a goal, complete a project or task or face a difficult experience or person head on. However, it is a problem if it leads to giving up too easily on a problem or task, is expressed verbally or physically in an aggressive or violent manner or is stuffed and shows up in physical symptoms or passive-aggressive behaviors that harm an important relationship.
Guilt can influence us to correct problems in relationships or change our behavior that others find hurtful. For individuals in recovery from an addiction, guilt can play a positive role in the decision and process of making amends or repairing damage to others as a result of the addiction. Guilt is a problem if it is excessive, lowers self-esteem or causes us to avoid others we feel guilt towards. Additionally, grief is a normal reaction to losing a loved one and a way of expressing our suffering and our love for the lost person. Grief is a problem if it is too intense and persists over a long time, and interferes with our ability to function or form new relationships or attachments. Grief can lead others to providing us love and support, and helping us through the grief process. Or, it can deepen our commitment to loved ones or affect our spiritual or religious beliefs or practices in positive ways as we turn to God or another higher power for comfort and healing.
Interventions used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) help clients improve negative mood states and emotions by decreasing negative, faulty or distorted thinking, changing behaviors, and getting involved in meaningful activities. Dialetical behavior therapy (DBT) helps clients decrease impulsive behaviors and increase emotional control and the ability to tolerate distress. DBT also helps the client address chaotic relationships in which they may end abusive relationships and improve communication skills. CBT, DBT, and many other psychological interventions can improve the client’s emotional life and ability to function and resolve problems or conflicts. These interventions go beyond symptom reduction and enhance well-being and the quality of life.
AA, NA, and other Twelve Step programs help members decrease negative feelings (HALT), thoughts (stinking thinking), and behaviors by offering members a program of change such as meetings, sponsorship, the Twelve Steps, slogans, recovery literature, and recovery events. Working the program can help members increase positive thinking and emotions (e.g., gratitude and forgiveness may be discussed among members or at meetings), develop relationships with sober, supportive people, and focus on spirituality in recovery, all of which add meaning to their lives.
Virtues and Strengths
Two of the leaders of positive psychology, Marty Seligman and the late Christopher Petersen, published a seminal work on virtues and character strengths (Petersen and Seligman, 2004). The idea is to help individuals identify and build upon personal strengths and develop and use additional strengths. Seligman and Petersen identified twenty-four strengths, each of which express one of six virtues. These virtues and corresponding strengths include:
- Wisdom, or intellectual strength related to acquiring and using information, which appears in creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, and perspective.
- Courage, or the will to accomplish goals despite fear or obstacles, which appears in integrity, bravery, persistence or vitality.
- Humanity, in which you befriend others and focus on relationships, which appears in social or emotional intelligence, love, and kindness.
- Justice, or the desire to contribute to a healthier community, which appears in teamwork, fairness or leadership.
- Temperance, or the ability to avoid excess and stay focused despite temptations, which appears in mercy (forgiving others), humility, modesty, self-control, and prudence.
- Transcendence, or connecting with the larger world and provides meaning to your life, which appears in appreciation of beauty, spirituality, gratitude, hope, and humor.
The Values in Action (VIA) Institute on Character offers a free online inventory of strengths to help identify personal strengths. Using strengths contributes to attaining goals, well-being, and personal happiness, and can improve mood. Developing and using character strengths can also have a positive impact on relationships, career, and personal growth. You can view the online inventory at www.viacharacter.org.
In clinical practice, you can help clients assess and use their strengths to improve their lives, address weaknesses they wish to change, focus on successes, and move away from self-criticism (Biswas-Diener, 2013). This is also a useful activity for your own self-awareness and personal growth.
Positive Emotions and Well-Being
The positive psychology movement stimulated a significant increase in literature on positive emotions such as compassion, happiness, love, and gratitude as well as positive relationships, achievements, and meaning in life. Following is a brief review of several researchers, theorists and authors whose work I found to be inspiring and helpful in my clinical work and personal life. A disclaimer is that there are many other outstanding researchers, clinicians, and authors who have contributed to the positive psychology literature—the Greater Good Science Center has book reviews on many of these topics.
Seligman (2012) expanded his original theory about happiness in this book, in which he discusses the following elements of well-being:
- Positive emotion is the cornerstone of well-being, and a major factor in our happiness and satisfaction with life.
- Engagement is the process in which we become absorbed by tasks or activities (referred to as “flow”) that feel good and bring us satisfaction.
- Positive relationships help meet our need for love from others and are the best antidote to the difficulties we face in our lives.
- Meaning refers to belonging to or serving something greater than ourselves, which adds purpose and direction to life.
- Accomplishment is the pursuit of success, mastery or achievement. While we often think of this related to our professional life, it may come in many areas including our avocations.
In her book by this title, Fredrickson (2009) discusses her theory about how positive emotions help us broaden and build our relationships and enhance our creativity while helping to reduce negative emotions. She recommends a ratio of three positive for each negative emotion experienced. While Fredrickson acknowledges negative emotions are extremely valuable in the short-term, positive emotions lead to better physical health, less pain and disability related to chronic illness, better mental health and quality of life, and better relationships. Her work provides suggestions on ways to increase compassion, forgiveness, love, hope, joy, faith, awe, and gratitude. In her recent book, Love 2.0 (2013), Fredrickson provides an extensive discussion of what she considers the “supreme” emotion. She believes love has a central role in improving our physical and mental health, which can add to our longevity. Fredrickson discusses love as micro-moments of connection between people, even strangers, and offers ways to promote love and compassion.
Positive Emotions and the Meaningful Life
The Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) of the University of California at Berkeley focuses on the “science of a meaningful life.” Core themes of GGSC are altruism, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, gratitude, happiness, and mindfulness. Their website (www.greatergood.berkeley.edu) is a rich resource with articles, books, research summaries, videos, podcasts, and PowerPoint presentations of leading researchers. A related website, The Greater Good in Action: Science-Based Practices for a Meaningful Life (www.ggia.berkeley.edu) offers practical research-based tools to address the core themes mentioned above. For example, it provides ideas on how to let go of grudges by the use of principles of forgiveness, how to increase positive emotions when feeling deflated or down on oneself, ways to reduce stress through mindful breathing, how to increase self-compassion when you are beating yourself up, and how to focus on your blessings by the use of a gratitude journal. These are just a few of the many excellent tools provided to enhance positive emotions and personal growth.
Anderson and Anderson published (2003) an excellent review of research that shows how our health and longevity are affected by our well-being in the following areas:
- Biological or physical such as physical activity, diet, smoking, and drinking. Research shows the adverse impact of nicotine addiction and alcoholism on medical disorders and early death, and the positive impact of a healthy diet and regular exercise on physical and mental health and longevity.
- Psychological or behavioral, which includes our thoughts, actions, and response to trauma. Too much negative or pessimistic thinking increases depression. While most people adjust to and recover from trauma, some do not and experience a range of negative reactions.
- Emotional, which refers to increasing positive and managing negative emotions. Emotions contribute to the development, course, and recovery phase of disease. Emotion and mood states that cause the most problems include depression and sadness, anxiety and fear, and anger and hostility. According to studies reported in this book, depression increases the risk for heart disease two to four times, and anxiety increases this risk four to seven times. Higher levels of anger lead to a sevenfold increase in risk for a second cardio event, and higher hostility levels have nearly a fivefold greater incidence of heart disease and death rate.
- Economic, which depends on education, income, economic equality, and achievements.
- Environment and social, which include stable housing, safe neighborhoods, and supportive relationships.
- Existential, religious, and spiritual, which include beliefs and actions that foster faith and meaning in life. Spirituality is an important for many individuals recovering from a disease or disorder.
Emmons is one of the leading researchers on this area and published many papers and two books (2007, 2013) in which he summarizes gratitude research and provides a number of strategies to increase gratitude in our lives. Gratitude refers to being thankful for and having readiness to show appreciation for and to return the kindness received from others. It can be person-to-person as a result of a material gift or non-material gesture, or transpersonal to God or a Higher Power for the gifts received in life or the beauty one sees in life. Emmons reports many consistently grateful people experience more positive emotions, are more spiritual, have more energy and enthusiasm, are less materialistic, are more helpful and connected to others, and feel less lonely and isolated. One of my future columns will discuss gratitude in greater depth.
In recent years there has been a significant increase in the focus on positivity as it relates to self growth and helping others. There are many physical, psychological, interpersonal, and spiritual benefits for clients and us if we become more aware and improve our ability to manage our negative and increase our positive emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. There are numerous resources to help us increase our knowledge and skills in using the findings from many excellent researchers and theorists.
References and Suggested Readings
Anderson, N. B., & Anderson, P. E. (2003). Emotional longevity: What really determines how long you live. New York, NY: Viking.
Biswas-Diener, R. (2013). Invitation to positive psychology: Research and tools for the professional. Lexington, KY: Positive Acorn.
Emmons, R. A. (2007). Thanks: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.
Emmons, R. A. (2013). Gratitude works! A 21-day program for creating emotional prosperity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Top-notch research reveals the upward spiral that will change your life. New York, NY: Harmony.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Love 2.0: How our supreme emotion affects everything we feel, think, do, and become. New York, NY: Hudson Street Press.
Harvard Health Publications. (2009). Positivity psychology: Increasing the power of happiness, personal strength, and mindfulness. Boston, MA: Author.
Petersen, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Seligman, M. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Atria.
Snyder, C. R., Lopez, S. J., & Pedrotti, J. T. (Eds.). (2014). Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.